In Ancient Chacoan Society, Women Ruled

By Ian Graber-Stiehl | February 21, 2017 12:03 pm

Pueblo Bonito taken from the northern rim of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. (Credit: Douglas Kennett, Penn State University)

Before they disappeared in 1130, the Chacoans of New Mexico were a society on par with the Mayans.

Without a writing system to speak of, they maintained complex trade partnerships with nearby populations. They lived in sprawling, complex stone mini-cities called “great houses”—the largest of which, Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, boasted 650 rooms. They Chacoans were one of North America’s earliest complex societies, but archaeologists still aren’t sure why they disappeared—climate change and drought are leading theories.

Apart from their mysterious disappearance, archaeologists have long sought to understand how Chacoan society was organized. Western Pueblo societies of the period saw relation and rank, as determined by the control of ritual sources of power, traced through the mother’s side of the family. Eastern Pueblo societies determined social rank based on ability and achievement rather than ancestry. So how did the Chacoans distribute power? 

Well, according to a paper published Tuesday in Nature Communications, Chacoan social structure worked according to the order of Beyonce—that is to say, women ran the show.

The Room

Room 33, excavated in 1896, is arguably the most archaeologically important room in Pueblo Bonito. It serves as a crypt for over a dozen elite Chacoan, who were buried with atypical care amid conch shell trumpets, abalone shells, flutes, and turquoise beads (11,200 alone, in the most ornate burial). The trove of turquoise alone makes it the richest burial in the American Southwest. 


Pueblo Bonito room blocks. (Credit: George Perry, Penn State University)

In the new study, researchers analyzed mitochondrial DNA, which is only inherited from one’s mother. They discovered that nine individuals buried in the aristocratic crypt had identical mitochondrial genomes. Further analysis confirmed that the elites buried in Room 33 burial were related on their mother’s side of the family. It all makes for a rather decisive argument that Chacoan society traced inheritance, rank, and privilege matrilineally.

“One elite matriline was maintained in Pueblo Bonito for at least 300 years, suggesting that the elite matriline likely ruled Pueblo Bonito (at least) and perhaps sociopolitical affairs in Chaco Canyon as a whole for as long as three centuries,” according to Dr. Stephen Plog, a researcher involved with the study. 

The study also represents quite a feat in archaeogenomics; after all, they assembled a family tree from an ancient society with no written records. Researchers say, to the best of their knowledge, this is the first study to do it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology
  • proudgrampa

    This is fascinating stuff.

  • Jim Tomashoff

    “Before they disappeared in 1130, the Chacoans of New Mexico were a society on par with the Mayans.” Yes, but without the pathological human sacrifice based theology. Maybe the women had something to do with this fact?

    • Ian Graber-Stiehl

      Author here: Well that, like many crazy-as-hell traditions, actually involved religion. Want to guess which is the more religious sex?

      • Hibernia86

        In the modern day, women are more religious. But the article doesn’t say anything about whether women actually had anything to do with the religious aspects of the society.

    • Hibernia86

      Or maybe it was just due to local culture. Just because the leadership was traced through the female line doesn’t mean that the women themselves actually had any more power in this culture. I don’t like, though, how people seem to blame the male gender itself for the bad actions of different cultures.

  • AcheArtist

    Excavated in 1896, and I have never heard of the treasure trove discovered there. This is fascinating for sure!

  • Uncle Al

    One knows who had the baby. The father is indeterminate.

  • Paul Golonski

    Mayans had sophisticated math, astrology and a written language. They built amazing structures, roads, stadiums and had a very complex society.

    Chacoans were remarkable in their own way and scraped a small budding civilization from a very sparse environment but you can’t really compare that to the Mayans.

    My 2 cents having visited several sites from both.

  • OWilson

    Female dominated societies don’t fare well, it seems.

    Nature, not nurture, prevails.

    • deadkandance

      Are male dominated really doing all that great? They mostly seem pretty violent and inclined to keep women secondary in status.

      • OWilson

        Look around!

        How many women dominated societies (except for the Democratic Party) do you see?

        Just sayin’

        • Kandeda Trefil`

          And I’M “just sayin'” the same thing I already wrote (above); when land is plentiful, war is MUCH less often indulged in. Land is VERY expensive these days, even in the States. As a young man my father (in the 1930’s) cobbled together (from nothing) a fertile 800+ acre farm in 10 years. My husband and I, now in our 70’s, both professionals, have barely gotten 20 acres and most of it hardly (!) agriculturally viable. As the population increases, so do land values, and also women lose status. Who wants more people to divide our natural resources among?

          • OWilson

            Respect for private property rights is a long standing political issue.

            Some don’t believe that land can be “property” or can be “owned” by an individual.

            Under Communism or Socialism there is no “private property”.

            Except the palaces where the Popes and the Dear Leaders live, that is :)

          • Kandeda Trefil`


          • joe_bob_gonzales

            ya noticed how the leaders do seem to live pretty well, even as the people starve to death. ahem, n. korea.

          • OWilson

            The Fake News Capital of the world!

      • Hibernia86

        But I think the violence is part of their success. If you were violent, then you were more likely to win wars and thus more likely to get the resources of the land you conquered. Peaceful countries got run over and didn’t last long. Ultimately, though, I think that males ruled due to internal fights for power. If the warriors of a tribe didn’t like a female ruler, they could just overthrow her. It was easier for men to identify with the male warriors and thus easier for them to form alliances that allowed them to stay in power.

        • Kandeda Trefil`

          When land is plentiful, war is much more rare. Just so, among some of the eastern tribes, the WOMEN elected the leaders, and woe be unto anyone who lead that the women came to dislike.

          • Hibernia86

            To my understanding it was only the elderly women and they only voted if they wished to remove a leader, not every year, but yes I think you may be correct. However, these tribes had towns but no true cities and still got much of their food through hunting and gathering. In nations that were primarily agricultural, male rule would become more standard as a military was necessary to protect the farmland because without the farmland large numbers of people would starve to death.

            While there were female leaders in places like Egypt, male rule became far more common (without any women voting on it). I wouldn’t be surprised if the same was true for the Aztec.

      • Mark Perrault

        But evolution was never very nice. Natural selection I about passing on genes which means survival.
        Male patriarchy and sons as a source of power was a source of power because leaders emerged with sons as followers and they basically had an advantage over all other men who didn’t have a clue which kid was theirs.
        Men are the predator of the sapiens species.
        Long before there was a Spain, the original peoples had wiped out all the mega fauna just like the rest of the planet.
        We have an object on a comet. Thinking men are doing pretty good I would say.
        I blame women (half joking but unless women had zero influence in raising their boys and girls in patriarchy I have a point) for telling their daughters to prefer rich men. The best hunter. The boy with the most potential to make money not the most potential to be a smart, funny, nice kind person. Women still are a driving force behind patriarchy. Ride that rich guy like he rides his horse.
        Behind every great man is a woman.

    • Uncle Al

      Husband, “Honey, do you want to tinkle before we go?”
      Wife, “I’ll go when we come back”

      The average women lacks experience throwing and catching a ball, hitting a nail, and driving a screw (cause and effect). Carly Fiorina gutted Hewlett-Packard. HER spent $600 million more than The Donald and got Electoral College stomped. Trump builds big buildings with linear algebra optimization not political “science.”

      netwar dot wordpress dot com slash 2007 slash 07 slash 03 slash feminist-epistemology slash
      …Lena Dunham? Professor Dr. Luce Irigaray!

      www dot bristol dot ac dot uk slash geography slash news slash 2013 slash 321 dot html
      …”Luce Irigaray is one of the world’s most important contemporary thinkers.” So stipulated. She is an exemplar of her sex.

      • Ian Graber-Stiehl

        Correction: Trump does not build anything. That is handled by people below him. He is not an architect. What is clear, if we want to talk Trump math, is that his fortune could have been better managed had they been invested in index funds.

        And HER spent more…to win the popular vote.

        • OWilson

          Most people cannot understand genius. It not in their genes.

          “He can’t do that!”, “How’s he gonna do that!”, “He can’t just wave a magic wand!” – A street organizer Obama, talking about a man who changes the skyline of world class cities.

          One man’s swamp, is another man’s hotel, or hospital.

          Mozart never made beautiful music, he just threw down a few marks on paper.

          It’s the tambourine players and the rest in the orchestra that actually makes that music!

          One man’s hunk of marble is Michaelangelo’s “David”

          And you’ll never be able to figure out the difference!

          • Mike Richardson

            Better keep the matches away from Trump. Oops, he’s got the nuclear codes. ‘Cause a genius, he ain’t.

          • OWilson

            As I was saying, critics are a dime a dozen :)

            Speaking of genius, built any world class hotels lately?

            Or are you still trying to re-build your shack on the same spot you told us you were flooded out of? :)

          • Mike Richardson

            My home is rebuilt, and better than before. More likely than not, quite a bit more spacious than the padded room to which you’ll be consigned once your family finally tires of your deranged antics and has you involuntarily committed. :)

            Nope, I haven’t had the need to build any gaudy architectural phallic overcompensations, nor the desire to grab every woman I see by the genitals. Have you, like your idol? 😉

          • OWilson

            Bill Clinton is NOT my idol!

            But glad to see you rebuilt in the same flooded out spot :)

            Keep a weather eye out! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Keep an eye out for karma, ya hear?

    • Ian Graber-Stiehl

      Hasn’t most every major war in history been started by a man? The deaths on Mao’s hands alone, over the failed great leap forward, likely exceed that of all of human history’s women

      • OWilson

        See that marauding band of barbarians looting your village, and eating your kids?

        You gonna send your pregnant wife out there to stop them?

        (Well, maybe YOU would :)

        • Mike Richardson

          Insulting the blog post author? Now that’s genius.😂

          • OWilson

            Ah, my erstwhile troll!

            The gentleman above is insulting men by blaming them for ALL WARS.

            The role of the female in society and power politics in a very complex one.

            I’m sure he can speak for himself, LOL

            You search for approval notwithstanding :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Ah, Mr. Irony himself, referring to others as trolls. 😂

          • OWilson

            A troll is someone who adds nothing on topic to a thread.

            Guess what Mikey? That’s YOU!

      • Hibernia86

        Probably, but having a strong military can also be important toward defending your nation and conquering new lands. Thus nations run by male militaries tended to grow larger and more powerful. Male soldiers had an easier time identifying with male rulers, so the men were able to last on the throne longer.

    • joe_bob_gonzales

      there is a book titled
      the chalice and the blade.

      you might want to take a look at it, its been around for some time.

  • David Brown

    Great research helps a great deal .

  • Ian Koch

    They provided no actual evidence of anything other than 1 mass grave among many had some related people in it. Since the buried were not females, If anything, it is proof of incest.

  • Hibernia86

    The article says that the rulers were traced through the female line, but that doesn’t mean the rulers were female, just that the male rulers were related through the mother. So if a man ruled, the next to rule would be his brothers, then his sister’s sons and so on. That doesn’t mean any females actually ruled themselves.

  • Small_Businessman

    I’d just like to know where they got the conch shell trumpets and abalone shells. I didn’t think there were any oceans around New Mexico in the 1100’s.

    • Hibernia86

      If Europe and Asia can have the silk road, then I’m sure they could have set up something in New Mexico as well for trade.

      • Small_Businessman

        Yes, that’s possible. However, the only mention of trade is with nearby populations. It would take a lot of trade to get to the ocean.
        Also, the Asians at this time were much more mobile and trade oriented than the people of the U.S. southwest at the time. It just seems unusual to me to have that many conch and abalone shells hundreds of miles from the nearest salt water. They must have been worth a fortune (as was silk).

        • OWilson

          You only need to trade with immediate neighbors to acquire rare and valuable goods in a relatively short time.

          The “bucket brigade” system is very efficient.

          Rarity sets value.

          Shells, cattle, grain, chickens, salt have all been used as currency.

  • bwana

    An amazing society! I spent several days at the site in 2011; well worth the visit. I think the real downfall of the society was a change in the climate to much drier; it is a desert today. Much the same thing happened to the Anasazi at about the same time.

    It is too bad all society isn’t dominated by women. Estrogen would get us in far less trouble than testosterone has!

  • agnes debinski

    Really impressive research, I can’t wait to tell my female friends as well as my male friends interested in sociology regarding the culture of female human beings – I would like to say feminism, but I am not sure everyone still uses that term, if yes, I will be happy to use it of course. Many of my friends somehow usually don’t believe in social media, but I reckon they would be most impressed by this site, as I am too. Discover is a priceless source, that helps the whole world share valuable knowledge.
    I always loved articles about Ancient Egypt, where women were also appreciated. This article is a really cool discovery that many human scientists have been unable to make all by themselves, I certainly haven’t been. Very well done, if I may say so.

  • topcat_99

    When reading anything news you have to look for what isn’t said. Here the author wants you to think that these people were ruled by women. The author certainly implies that but never says it. What it says is that those found in the fancy burial chamber were related by their maternal line. It would be obvious from the DNA if these individuals were men or women, but the author is silent on that. Since the intent of the article is to get you to believe women were the leaders of these people, but the gender of these special burials is not mentioned, one can pretty well guess that the ones found in the special burial chamber were men. If they were women, that would have been shouted from the headlines. So if these guys were the leaders, leadership was passed from man to man based on his maternal heredity.

  • Ani Animasola

    Isn’t Navajo culture matrilineal as well?

  • Rich Zubaty

    The article is a desperate attempt to find a matriarchal society which actually built anything.

    And No, Men are not the cause of war.

    Greed, materialism, and self-seeking are the causes of war. The 20th century witnessed an exponential increase in women’ rights including the right to vote. And an exponential increase in war – two World Wars and hundreds of equally deadly lesser conflicts. These facts are NOT unrelated. Female greed, materialism, and self-seeking are the major causes of war. Men are obligated to fight war. Women are not. But women adore the security, luxury and technical “time-saving” gadgetry produced in a military economy.

    Female values are the cause of war.



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